John Leguizamo is the type of father that wouldn’t sit still to wait for bullies to stop harassing his son because of his race. Instead, he set out on a quest to dig up centuries of Latin history and unveil the forgotten contributions Latinos have made to the United States, from the American Revolutionary War to defeating Germany in World War II to fueling the US economy today.
The result is Latin History for Morons, Leguizamo’s sixth one-man show, which follows in the footsteps of previous successes like Spic-O-Rama, Sexaholix… A Love Story, and Ghetto Klown, all autobiographical productions that draw on his personal experience. Only this time, the show plays out like a 90-minute-long, provocatively funny reeducation session covering 3,000 years of Latin history, starting with the Aztec and Incan Empires.
After a sold-out run at the Public Theater in New York City in 2017 and a premier on Broadway in October 2018, Latin History for Morons launched on Netflix on November 2018 and has toured through cities across the US. Now, Leguizamo is bringing the show to Boston’s Emerson Colonial Theater, with two presentations on Nov 7 and 8.
DigBoston spoke to Leguizamo about the process of “de-moronizing” himself and the audience, the potential impact of political changes amidst a history of racial tensions in America, and the importance of facts and information in the era of “fake news.”
Latin History for Morons is your sixth one-man show. Can you talk a bit about your evolution as an artist, and how that journey prepared you to create such a relevant piece for these times we are living in?
What is fascinating is that it’s my sixth show. I’ve been on Broadway, got some awards, but somehow I finally arrived at the top of my game. And it’s because it’s a combination of learning how to be a great storyteller and now combining history, and making it a night where Latin people leave the theater realizing that being Latin is a superpower.
How is Latin History for Morons different from your previous shows?
The difference is that this one has a lot more history than before.
I started reading all these books and finding all these websites because none of this information was in my education or in my son’s history textbook. And I found out that we’re the second oldest ethnic group in America, after Native Americans; that we’re the only ethnic group that has fought in every single war that America has ever had. We’re the most decorated minority in every single one: I’m talking about the American Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War I, World War II. And 10,000 unknown Latino patriots fought in the American Revolution. Cuban women in Virginia sold their jewelry to feed the patriots. General Bernardo Gálvez had an army of 3,000 Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Mexicans, Native Americans, and freed slaves, and they stripped the British all out of the South, out of Louisiana, Pensacola. He was like the George Washington of the South.
Then 20,000 of us fought in the Civil War; 120,000 of us fought in World War I. We have hundreds of unsung heroes, like Marcelino Serna, who, being shot at and injured, captured 24 Germans and got a Purple Heart. Nicolás Lucero, who destroyed two of the biggest gun nests in Germany, while maintaining fire for three hours and earned a French Croix de la Guerre.
In World War II we were 400,000, so even more unrecognized heroes.
And we have no movies, no history channel episodes, no history textbooks. … I mean, this erasure or deletion of our contributions can’t be accidental. It’s too weird not to include these huge heroes. It seems purposeful to keep us from gaining power.
The show feels in part like a personal emotional journey that you invite the audience to take with you. Who were you before and who are you after Latin History for Morons? How has this show changed you personally?
I am a totally different person. I realized we had the largest empires in the world that made big contributions: the Incan, Mayan and Aztec empires. And after they were destroyed, we’re still contributing to the world and to America.
After all the oppression and injustices that we’ve experienced in America, we still contribute. We added $2.3 trillion to the US economy. If we were a country, we would be the eighth-largest economy in the world. Latin women are number one at small business creation, at 87% in America. We shape the housing market, with 68% of total sales.
Knowing all these facts, I just feel like no one can ever take away my Americanness. No one can ever un-Americanize me or make me feel less than. It’s impossible now.
The show also reflects on parenthood and your experience as a father (in fact, it was inspired by your son being bullied at school and your quest to help him). Has the show transformed your relationship with your son or the way he feels about his Latin heritage?
I’ve always made both my son and my daughter feel very proud of everything they are and everything they come from. Because I didn’t feel that as much growing up, especially from the lack of Latin information in newspapers, magazines, television, history textbooks, movies. … So I wanted my kids to feel the complete opposite and be shielded, and have this information as weapons.
You’ve previously talked about your creative process when putting the show together and how it involves a lot of “trial and error” to constantly develop new ways to deliver the story. Now you’re coming to Boston, a city that has had its moments of racial tension and with a significantly big Hispanic community. How do you think Latin History for Morons will play out in Boston?
I really hope it fires up my community and also white liberals. I also hope it converts some republicans to our cause, you know? I mean, I just want everybody walking out of that theater being soldiers and taking out this information and disseminating it, because it’s important information.
Overall, what has been the audience’s response to the show? Is there any particular experience you can think of involving people’s reactions or feedback?
A lot of people come to my show and say that what they hear changes them. This Puerto Rican woman in New York City, who was 70 years old, from the Bronx, said that for the first night she didn’t feel like a second-class citizen. I’ve had men come up to me saying “I wept today through the show. I feel changed.”
It may be entirely different to perform this show in a city like Miami, for instance, in front of an audience with more cultural proximity and a shared collective experience of what it’s like to be a Latino in the US, than it would be in other places in the country. Have you encountered any pushback or resistance from the audience in any city where you’ve presented the show before?
Well, I’ve been in Seattle, Oakland, Dallas, Midland, Michigan. I’m going to Austin, San Antonio, Sugarland, all of Texas. And yeah, it’s interesting. Obviously where there’s less of a Latin demographic it’s a much larger white audience, and some people walk away, you know? Some people will leave. It’s usually a very small number. But there is usually like an old white couple that have walked out, but the majority of people, white, Latin, black, are moved, invigorated, inspired. They are changed. It’s a very small number of people who can’t reach out to the other side, who don’t want to empathize. But they are in the minority.
In America today, there are discussions happening about diversity, and particularly for African Americans, initiatives like the New York Times 1619 project that addresses the history of slavery and segregation in the US. There is also ongoing debate about reparations for African Americans. Do you feel there is also a debt owed to Latin people in America?
Yeah! That’s what I’m addressing on the show: that here is a huge debt to Latin people for what we’ve accomplished, because we were robbed many times in America.
Take the Repatriation Act of 1930. Five hundred thousand Latin people that were born in the United States, who were American citizens. And they’ve never done this to anyone else in the history of the United States: They deported 500,000 people all throughout the Southwest because they said they were taking jobs. But they were Americans. And people who didn’t leave were lynched. Six hundred Latin people were lynched between 1830 and 1930.
So, yes: America owes us an apology, owes us a “thank you.” And I want to be one of the spokespersons to demand that. And people leave the theater feeling that they need to demand that. White, Latin and black people all feel part of the cause. That is the beautiful thing about it.
You’ve previously said that your approach for Latin History for Morons was to “give facts and information” as a way to reeducate people. How do you feel about that approach at a time when there’s this rising narrative about “fake news” and people increasingly wary of traditional sources of information? Do you feel that facts still carry the same weight they used to?
For the majority of Americans who are rational, yes. Obviously, for some Americans who have lost touch with reality, no. But the majority, luckily, I think more than 80% of Americans still understand that a fact is a fact. A fact is not a political tool or an opinion. It’s not something you can discuss. If something is black, it’s black. If something is white, it’s white. It’s not a maybe. Well, maybe for Fox News it’s white, but it can’t be! A fact is a fact and you can’t deny that.
These are complicated, divisive times in America today: racism, Trump, growing anti-immigration sentiment, a surge in white supremacy. How does Latin History for Morons fit in all of this and what do you hope people to be left with after they see the show?
The show is a call to action. Everybody has got to do something every day. You’ve got to call your senators, write to your congressman, run for office, get out and vote, register people to vote, call the networks. You know? We have to do something everyday. Something! And I see a lot of Latin groups really getting turned on and getting much more politicized, and fighting for much more. I wrote this article two years ago on Billboard, about the lack of inclusion in Hollywood, and it has changed. Over the last two years we went from less than 3 percent to 4.5 percent. I know it’s not enough but it’s something.
I think the way we move forward is if we all do these things: write letters, write editorials, calling congressmen, run for office, support all these incredible Latin people, especially Latin women across the country. In New York City we won four seats [in the State Assembly, State Senate and the US House of Representatives] with Latin women: Catalina Cruz, Jessica Ramos, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Julia Salazar, and then Antonio Delgado upstate. All these seats.
I’m hoping Latin, black, white people, Asian people, to leave the show feeling honored to know a Latin person, and knowing that we Latin people are one of the biggest contributors into the making of the United States.
You came to America when you were 4 years old and you’ve said that you were bullied at school. Decades later, your son was too. And in the show you also draw some parallels between the injustice and discrimination historically suffered by Latin people and how Latin communities accross the US are still experiencing that to some extent today. Do you have hope for America? Do you believe there’s still a chance for people to come together and overcome racial differences in this country?
I definitely do. I think most people in America, they want to believe in facts. They believe in unity; they believe in inclusion. They want to be part of the United States, not the “Divided States.”